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Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver. Inflammation usually produces swelling, tenderness, and sometimes permanent damage. Hepatitis is caused by a number of things including alcohol, drugs, chemicals, and viral infections. If the inflammation of the liver continues at least six months or longer, it is called chronic hepatitis.

Currently there are at least five different viruses known to cause viral hepatitis:

Viral Hepatitis A: Sometimes called "Infectious Hepatitis." It is spread by eating food or drinking water contaminated with human feces. This type of viral hepatitis is infrequently life-threatening.

Viral Hepatitis B: Sometimes called "Serum Hepatitis." It is spread from mother to child at birth or soon after, through sexual contact, contaminated blood transfusions and needles. This form of viral hepatitis may lead to cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver.

Viral Hepatitis C: Formerly known as "non-A, non-B Hepatitis." This form of viral hepatitis is the most common. It can be spread through blood transfusions and contaminated needles. However, for a substantial number of patients, the cause is unknown. This form of viral hepatitis may lead to cirrhosis, or scarring, of the liver.

Viral Hepatitis D: This form of viral hepatitis is found most often in IV drug users who are carriers of the hepatitis B virus. It is spread only in the presence of the hepatitis B virus and is transmitted in the same way. This type of viral hepatitis occurs in people who have viral hepatitis B, and is a serious health problem.

Viral Hepatitis E: This form of viral hepatitis is similar to viral hepatitis A. It is found most often in people who live in countries with poor sanitation. It is rare in North America, and rarely life-threatening.

The liver is an organ that plays an important role in managing the body’s functions including:

  • Filters and detoxifies chemicals in what you eat, breathe, and absorb through the skin
  • Stores certain vitamins, minerals, sugars, and iron
  • Regulates fat stores and controls production and release of cholesterol
  • Destroys poisonous substances
  • Changes the food you eat into energy, clotting factors, immune factors, hormones, and proteins
  • Breaks down drugs and medications

What are the Symptoms of Viral Hepatitis?

Many cases of viral hepatitis are not diagnosed because the symptoms are vague and similar to a flu-like illness. Sometimes, there are no symptoms at all. Some individuals with viral hepatitis may develop fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort, muscle and joint aches, and changes in the color of urine and stools. A few of the individuals with viral hepatitis may develop jaundice. Jaundice means that the skin and whites of the eyes turn yellow. Itching of the skin may also occur with jaundice.

What Should I Do if I Have Been Exposed to or Think that I Have Viral Hepatitis?

Call your doctor and schedule an urgent appointment. Your doctor will take a history, do a physical examination, and order blood tests to determine your diagnosis.

Will I Need a Liver Biopsy?

Liver biopsy is a procedure by which a needle is used to remove a small piece of liver to be analyzed under a microscope. This procedure is done to confirm the diagnosis of viral hepatitis and to determine the degree of damage the virus has caused. A liver biopsy is usually not needed to determine the cause of hepatitis.

What is the Difference Between Acute and Chronic Hepatitis?

Acute hepatitis is the initial infection, and may be mild or severe. If the infection lasts for six months or longer the condition is called chronic hepatitis. Hepatitis A and E do not cause chronic hepatitis. The hepatitis viruses B, C, and D can produce both an acute and chronic episode of illness. Chronic hepatitis B and C are major health concerns.

Is Hospitalization Required for People with Hepatitis?

Usually hospitalization is not required. If a person cannot keep food or liquids down over a period of time, the doctor may decide hospitalization is needed.

What is a Carrier?

A carrier is a person who has hepatitis B, C, or D virus in the blood. This person may or may not have any symptoms of the disease. Because the virus is in the blood, it can be transmitted to others. Blood tests can determine if someone is a carrier.

What is the Treatment for Chronic Viral Hepatitis?

After the doctor has determined which type of hepatitis virus is present, treatment programs can be discussed. Some helpful hints for people with chronic viral hepatitis are listed below:

  • Review your medical history thoroughly with your doctor.
  • Exercising will depend on the presence and degree of fatigue present. If there is no fatigue, there are no restrictions to the amount or type of exercise that can be performed.
  • During the acute phase of illness, all alcoholic beverages should be avoided.
  • A nutritious, well-balanced diet is encouraged.

Should I Cook Meals?

People with hepatitis A or E should not prepare or handle food to be eaten by others. Limitations on food handling are not necessary for people with hepatitis B, C, or D.

What Hope for the Future?

During the past ten years, tremendous advances through research have been made in the field of viral hepatitis. Identifying the specific viruses that cause the disease is the first step in finding effective treatment programs.

Tips for Prevention Hepatitis A & E

Vaccines are available to protect people against hepatitis A. Good sanitation and personal hygiene will reduce the spread of hepatitis A and E. Water should be boiled if there is any question about contamination. Food should be cooked well and fruits peeled if there is any question about sanitation in the area. Avoid eating shell fish that feed in contaminated waters. To prevent the spread of hepatitis A and E in the family or with close personal contacts, wash hands, eating utensils, bedding and clothing in soap and water.

See Immunization Recommendations

Hepatitis B Vaccine

Vaccines are available to protect people against hepatitis B. Avoid exposure to blood or body fluids of an infected person. Do not have sexual contact with a hepatitis B infected person without the use of condoms. Do not share scissors, razors, nail files, toothbrushes, or needles with hepatitis B infected persons. Needles used for intravenous drugs or to give tattoos and body piercing can be other means of spreading hepatitis B.

Hepatitis B is frequently passed from infected mothers to newborns. It is important that all newborns of hepatitis B infected mothers be immunized against the virus at the time of birth.

A treatment plan to prevent liver damage may also be prescribed by your doctor.

See Immunization Recommendations

Hepatitis C Vaccine

Blood banks screen blood to insure the safety of the blood supply. This has greatly reduced the number of hepatitis C cases resulting from transfusions.

Avoid exposure to blood or body fluids of persons known to have or carry the hepatitis virus. Sharing needles with anyone must not be done.

A treatment plan to prevent liver damage may also be prescribed by your doctor.

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